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Historical Context: A New Canal System

Michele McFee, Historian

It was unheard of. Citizens were turning their backs on their aging friend, the Erie Canal! On October 26, 1903, a statewide vote on $101 million in proposed canal improvements was just a week away. Many people in upstate New York, including some residents of Binghamton in Broome County, believed that this new Barge Canal, with its proposed 1,000-ton vessels, would not be worth the taxpayers' money. That much money (more than the value of all the public schools in the state) was too much, especially for Broome County citizens. After all, canal traffic had decreased in the last few years, and many more people and goods now traveled by train. Durable rails, large cars, greater loads, faster speed, and more reliable delivery made railroads a better choice. Trains were a common sight in Binghamton, and a number of railroads were well established there by the turn of the 20th century. In addition, the Chenango Canal, which linked the city with the Erie Canal in the mid-1800s, had closed three decades earlier, severing the county's loyalty to canal travel. Even more important, Broome County residents saw no direct benefit from the new canal, located at least 75 miles away. 

The Erie Canal, which had once brought settlers, prosperity, and fame to New York State, was old-fashioned by 1900. Those in favor of the 1903 Barge Canal System argued that the new canal would be much deeper, wider, and more modern than the previous Erie Canal and its branches. Boats would no longer have to be pulled by mules or horses. New vessels built for the improved canal would be either self propelled or towed by tugboat. New engineering would allow the canal's improvers to harness rivers and lakes for navigation instead of digging ditches. Concrete, a relatively new building material, would replace cut stone during construction of the larger locks. These improvements would eventually allow boats to carry 100 times more cargo than those on the first Erie Canal. Canal supporters everywhere appealed to the patriotic pride of New Yorkers to maintain their national treasure. 

When the vote did finally take place on November 3, 1903, almost 75 percent of the 1,100,000 people who turned out at the polls approved the canal proposition. It had great support in the populous counties at either end of the Erie Canal. Supporters hoped the canal would help New York City remain a commercial giant, because grain and other products from the West would still be brought there. Buffalo would get cheap raw materials for its iron and steel industry. Other communities that benefited from such bulk shipments for manufacturing also voted for the canal. 

Although the voters authorized $101 million for the canal at the time, the eventual cost rose to $170 million. The first shovelful of dirt was moved in 1905, and the waterway's improvements were completed on May 15, 1918. Although today the canal is not used for commercial cargo, many New Yorkers remember the days when barges loaded with oil, grain, molasses, fertilizer, wood, sugar, and even automobiles would pass through their villages and cities on the canal. In 1951, when Barge Canal traffic reached its peak, oil was shipped in greater quantities than any other product. 

The Barge Canal maintains through living history the traditions of the Erie Canal. Sleek pleasure boats have taken the place of huge barges and rugged tugboats. Boaters today can still ply more than 500 miles of waterway on the Erie, the Oswego, the Champlain, and the Cayuga-Seneca canals, which make up the Barge Canal System. They can rise and descend slowly through the 58 locks, pass under the dozen or so lift bridges, and at a leisurely pace take in the many small villages, wide lakes, and picturesque rivers of this part of New York. Amazingly, much of the same operating machinery installed in 1918 — the lock gates, gears, and control panels, for instance is still used, adding to the historic charm of the modern waterway.